Downtown Hilton’s success rubbing off

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January 31, 2014

Central Ohio hotels attracted nearly 14 percent more visitors last year, and convention officials say it is in part because of the new Hilton Columbus Downtown.

The 532-room Hilton also has enabled Experience Columbus and the Greater Columbus Sports Commission to attract larger meetings and events that would have been out of reach in the past, officials said.

Hotel backers and experts say the upscale hotel on N. High Street, which opened in October 2012, is matching the high hopes that spurred construction of the convention hotel.

“Bidding on the Republican or Democratic national conventions (in 2016) and the NCAA women’s basketball Final Four (for 2017 to 2020) and hosting the NHL All-Star Game in 2015 wouldn’t be possible without the Hilton,” said Brian Ross, CEO of Experience Columbus, the city’s convention and visitors bureau.

About 115,000 additional hotel rooms were occupied in 2013 at area hotels, a 13.8 percent jump from the previous year, said Eric Belfrage, a hotel specialist with the commercial real-estate firm CB Richard Ellis in Columbus.

“It’s very noteworthy when we see that sort of additional supply absorbed as quickly as it was,” he said. “You ordinarily see demand grow 1 to 2 percent a year, and the growth we saw clearly indicates Brian and his team have been doing their job and getting events into the convention center.”

The Hilton also was a boost for the nearby 633-room Hyatt Regency, which had more guests and a higher average room rate in 2013 than the previous year, said Hyatt General Manager Stephen Stewart.

The new hotel “brought in greater numbers of people and drove more attention here,” Stewart said of the Hilton’s effect on all the Downtown hotels.

“From a customer standpoint, it’s appealing to know the community is investing in more accommodations, and this is especially appealing to big groups.”

This is also good news for Downtown businesses, especially those near the convention center.

“Foot traffic from the hotel has been noticeably up,” said Jason Fabian, general manager of Barley’s Brewing Co., about a block from the new hotel. “Sales were up last year. We feel confident that the Hilton played a role.”

Rick Wolfe, executive director of the North Market, expects to see greater traffic for his merchants when the convention center lands more big events in the future.

“Now that we have this full-service hotel, a number of (convention) opportunities that weren’t there before are now on the table,” Wolfe said. “It will be a game-changer in the long run.”

The Hilton’s 194,000 room nights per year had a minimal effect on the overall occupancy rate for the city’s hotels.

The occupancy rate for hotels in metropolitan Columbus was 61.8 percent in 2013, down from 61.9 percent the year before, according to statistics compiled by STR, a hotel-research organization, and Experience Columbus. The occupancy rate for Downtown hotels was 64.5 percent in 2013, down from 66.6 percent the previous year, according to the two organizations.

The average daily room rate for hotels in the metropolitan area was $90.14, up from $85.99 in 2012.

For Downtown hotels, the average nightly rate was $123.71, up from $117.50 in 2012.

“I can’t mention our specific numbers, but they were very good, much better than expected,” said Christian Coffin, general manager of the Hilton Columbus Downtown. “It usually takes 12 to 18 months to ramp up, and we did it in six.”

Coffin has worked at Hilton hotels in Boston, New York City and Philadelphia and said the collaboration here between the hotels, local businesses, Experience Columbus, and city and county officials is “phenomenal.”

“Everything is firing on all cylinders, and there’s so much support,” he said. “And what the mayor and other folks are doing right now to get the Republican or Democratic national conventions here (in 2016) is exciting stuff and would really put us on the map.”

The $160 million Hilton was built with county-backed bonds. The hotel’s portion of the 10 percent bed tax is used to repay these bonds.

“We had a very good first full year,” said John Christie, chairman of the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority.

“We paid (the required) $10.1 million for the bonds in 2013 and already have a balance of $3.7 million for the next payments,” he said, crediting Coffin and his team for the hotel’s smooth operations and better-than-expected revenues.

The Hyatt Regency’s Stewart declined to give specific occupancy and room rates for his hotel.

“When we compete with other cities, I know what Columbus offers is a large convention center, over a million square feet, and its connectivity with hotels and the Arena District,” he said. “For the community, additional hotel rooms mean additional conventions.”

Bringing in more big meetings is the goal of Experience Columbus.

“In 2011, we had 28 ‘citywide events,’ which is a meeting that booked 750 or more rooms on its peak night,” said Joe Bocherer, the group’s vice president of sales.

There were 33 such meetings in 2013, and Bocherer said the goal of 46 in 2017 is reachable.

Soon, say Bocherer and Ross, it might be time to build another large, full-service convention hotel.

“Our convention center will support at least another 1,000 hotel rooms,” Ross said.

Dispatch Reporter Mary Vanac contributed to this story.

swartenberg@dispatch.com

@stevewartenberg